Just think – parliament could have looked like a giant Essex pub
This absurd building will be there long after the latest bunch of elected tossers has entirely faded
What a reassuring presence it is, parliament: that lump of stately, plump Buck Mulliganism, languidly stretched out along the Westminster riverbank like an immaculately dressed toff.
Parliament looks great. In a world of fakery and rip-off (London), it's a welcome sight for tourists, especially those summoned by the global Harry Potter industry, who must suffer one crushing disappointment after another.
No triple-decker buses on Waterloo Bridge. No steam trains at King's Cross, no owls flying in and out, no platform announcements in Latin. No Londoners in 1950s clothing, apart from that gaggle of punchable Hoxton wankers clogging up the Hayward Gallery.
Parliament's dependable. Its style is "perpendicular", an austere form of Gothic that emerged at the height of the Black Death. There is definitely something impressive about having a 14th-century, Gothic font for your country's architectural narrative. It's enduring, conservative and famously repressed. It says: conquered by the French, untethered from Rome, Merrie England, beat the Nazis, Swinging London, plucky underdogs, keen sense of irony, still timelessly classy.
The perpendicular style also seems to inspire MPs. In the outside world, some of them might be mistaken for nondescript, bumptious pricks. Once inside, however, they, too, become perpendicular, standing tall in the House, solemnly inviting the Prime Minister to list his engagements for the day.
The best view of parliament is from the far bank, its highly formal and slightly camp elevation reflected in the river. From Monet's smoggy paintings to today's generic, online photo tagging Commons business, the killer image is of the building doubled in water. It looks like a sonogram - one of those spiky waveforms that appear with audio files. I can't look at that reflected image without hearing its voiceprint. It seems to be saying, "BAH! BAAH! No! Disgrace! ORDER! Furthermore . . . Point of order! Hear, hear! HEAR, HEAR! BONG!"
This ancient complex hasn't actually been there since the 14th century. It was built in the mid-19th, after one of the regular fires at the Palace of Westminster proved particularly tenacious, destroying most of the site. It was pretty loose in those days. They were probably roasting an ox or something in the archbishop of Canterbury's en suite.
A royal commission was appointed to oversee the design competition for our new parliament and it had to make some swift decisions about how British democracy should be expressed in building form.
It was 1835, at the height of the style wars: classical v Gothic. Or rather, neoclassical v Gothic revival. The commission quickly ruled out a neoclassical design - that sort of thing had become associated with volatile revolutionaries in America. Their White House had been built relatively recently, and despite the best efforts of British arsonists in 1814 - what is it with the British and parliamentary buildings and fire? - it was still standing as a symbol of post-colonial independence.
No, the royal commission said, Westminster must not be classical. Still, it's bizarre now to think that parliament could have looked completely different, because the commission ruled that the design could be either Gothic or "Elizabethan".
Those who sneer at the fake-antiquey pastiche of the place should pause for a moment. We could have had a parliament building that looks like one of those massive, half-timbered family pubs you get in rural Essex. Maybe MPs would not now have a perpendicular aspect at all. They'd all be like jolly landlords.
I like the Houses of Parliament: the architect Charles Barry's elegant design, Augustus Pugin's mad, Gothic interiors. It's all very Gormenghast inside, from the overwrought lobbies, where you half expect to encounter a hobgoblin, to the Press Gallery, where you can. It's amazing to watch the Hansard reporters, scribbling pencilled shorthand on pages of what looks like Bronco toilet paper. When they reach the end of a page, they simply, unglancing, hold it up for a runner.
It was an instinctive love for parliament, with its formal ebb and flow of proceedings and protocols, that allowed me to be so casually cruel in my book to the flickering avatars we see barking and hooting on our screens every week at Prime Minister's Questions. This absurd building, this
national theatre, will be there long after the latest transient bunch of elected tossers has entirely faded from memory.
Ian Martin's "The Coalition Chronicles" is published by Faber & Faber (£12.99)
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